Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston, Iowa
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
It’s a good thing to be strong, isn’t it? In fact, the world is made up of strong people. Politicians, professional athletes, steel workers, firefighters, etc. The world is built by strong people. In fact if you want to get ahead in the world you’d better be strong. If you have a goal you’ll never reach it if you’re not strong enough to do whatever is necessary to accomplish it. You’ve got to push aside every obstacle (thorn) that gets in your way. When bad things happen you’d for sure better not show any weakness, because the wolves out there will pounce on weakness. Don’t get bogged down like weak people who always need a hand to get along. Keep moving forward toward your goal. Be strong.
Strong people are necessarily self-confident. You can’t be successful if you’re not confident in your self and your abilities. You hafta know that you are better than anyone else. Of course that sounds a little conceited, so instead of that let’s call it confidence. You’ve gotta be confident that you are better than other people, stronger than other people. Having faith in yourself is the strength you need to succeed. It is the height of weakness to lack self-confidence and depend on anyone else to do things for you. That only leads to failure. Failure is for weaklings.
And worst of all, the most important thing to remember is this. There is no room in the world for grace. That’s having good things happen for you that you don’t deserve. Of course people win the lottery, or inherit a house, or even get lucky in love, but they don’t appreciate what they’ve got. They waste it. Most of the time it’s quick fortunes are mismanaged and lost quickly. Grace is really a crutch used by people who aren’t strong enough to make it on their own. Weak people depend on grace because of their weakness. You can’t depend on grace either. It’s rather gullible to sit and wait for something to fall into your lap.
But wait a minute… that’s not exactly what this text seems to be saying is it? Oh, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Paul was a weakling. He was constantly under attack, beaten, stoned and left for dead, jailed for years at a time, shipwrecked, struck blind, abandoned, and misunderstood. It’s a pretty strong person who undergoes such punishment… who takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’, as the old commercial used to say. It’s pretty easy, after all to make Paul out to be Super-Apostle. Bullets of false teaching seem to bounce off of him as he confronts his enemies. We imagine him walking all around Greece preaching boldly everywhere he goes. He seems strong and sure of himself. Paul even confronted Peter one time. Didn’t that take a great deal of strength? To stare down one of Jesus own disciples in public! That took a certain kind of strength, don’t you think?
You know, it’s easy to look at Paul’s life and see that strength. But the text for today paints us a very different picture. Paul writes these words himself:
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7–10, ESV)
It’s that last phrase that is the most interesting to me. “…when I am weak, then I am strong.” How can weakness ever be strength? How can a weak person be strong? And does Paul really mean it when he says, “I delight in weaknesses?” What in the world could Paul be talking about?
First of all, we should look at Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” Over the years lots of people have tried to decide exactly what it was, what kind of malady Paul suffered from. But he never tells us, in all his writings, this is all that we are told. I could make a list of possibilities but it really doesn’t matter what it was. Paul himself tells us what is important about it. He tells us that it had a purpose. “To keep me from becoming conceited.” What ever it was it had the ability to knock Paul down a peg, and keep him humble… and more than that he says it makes him weak! Paul the Super-Apostle, the human being responsible for founding the Christian Church was really just a weak man.
What did Paul know that we don’t? What did he have that we don’t have? How was he, weakling that he was, able to do all those things that he did? Paul tells us that, too. Well actually Jesus tells us that through Paul’s pen. "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Paul knew that with out the Grace of Jesus Christ, he’d be nothing, just a lost and condemned person. He knew that the work God had planned for him to do was at its best when Paul was weak and Jesus Christ was strong. When Paul was leaning on the crutch of Jesus Christ, when he was depending on Jesus to get him through, that’s when Jesus was most clearly seen in Paul. You see; Paul was a weak man who depended on someone else. In God’s economy of life there’s no room for conceit, or pride. What Paul is saying here is that, he really didn’t have anything to do with all that he did. With God, weakness and dependence is strength. With God, his undeserved love, his grace is sufficient for his people.
That doesn’t match up with how we are told life works, by the movers and shakers of the world. Dependent Paul was a weakling. But it shouldn’t surprise us that the world thinks that way. After all in the worlds estimation the crucifixion of Jesus is the epitome of weakness. People don’t see strength in humiliating, bloody, horrible public death. A strong person would never allow that to happen to himself. But the reality of it is that in all of human history no one has ever shown greater strength. It was in the suffering and death that Jesus brought salvation and release to sinful, prideful, conceited human beings. His suffering and death brought salvation to you and me!
Our problem is just like Paul’s… it’s just like everyone. We want to be strong and self-reliant. We want to make it on our own. If we look at our lives we can find lots of things to be boastful about. Our success stories are always me centered. Look at what I did to solve this problem or that problem. Look at the kingdom I’ve built for myself. I’m something special because I’ve beat the odds and become successful. We put ourselves ahead of God and trust our own resourcefulness to get us through our troubles. What we forget is that without the grace of God we wouldn’t even be here. Putting ourselves ahead of God makes him our enemy. We deserve death and hell for it. And the worst of it is that we can’t help it. That’s who we are, and how our mind’s work.
That was Paul’s issue, too. So God gave him a thorn to remind him who was really in control. He gave him a thorn to make him dependent. When Paul’s thorn made it impossible for Paul to function on his own, he turned to Jesus. When Paul was down and out, when he was weak, Paul turned in faith to the One he knew was strong. That’s what faith is. Depending on Jesus’ strength and now our own.
Got thorns in you life? Of course you do. They overwhelm you sometimes. We’d like nothing better than to have them gone. Paul asked God to take his away, too. But he rejoiced in his weakness because of what happened when he was weak. So, thank God for your thorns! Especially those that seem to be more than you can bear. It’s the big ones, the ones that take you down a peg, the ones that leave you desperate, and out of control, it’s those that push you to Jesus. When you’re riding high you don’t think about Him much at all. When trouble stalks you you’re constantly in prayer, just like Paul. When you are weak and depending on Jesus, that’s when His power is being made perfect in you. That’s where your faith is growing. It’s where the ‘rubber meets the road’ you might say.
God’s grace was sufficient for Paul. God’s grace is sufficient for us. But don’t think that God’s grace is a little thing, or of small account. God’s grace is sufficient because it is… well huge. The thorns we bear in our lives are nothing like the thorns Jesus bore on the cross. While he wore a crown made from them, he suffered the pain and death of all the world’s sin. The necessary punishment for your pride and conceit, the punishment for your climbing the social ladder on the heads of others, your self-dependence, were the thorns that pierced him on the cross. His death took it all away from you. It was undeserved. That is God’s grace. That He punished His only Son in your place. That’s God’s grace for you every single day. Pride isn’t in control. Selfishness isn’t in control. God’s grace is big enough that it covers them up.
So, it’s a good thing to be weak isn’t it? Weakness brings you to Jesus and His all sufficient grace. The thorns are there, they will be your whole life. So when the stick you rejoice and turn in faith to Jesus for help. That’s why they are there. Because when you are weak, then you are strong. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.